In autumn 2018, we decided to spend an extended weekend in northern Italy and visit the Italian lakes: Grandi laghi prealpini are a group of large lakes situated in northern Italy, on the south side of the Alps. They are glacial lakes that were formed after the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age and the group is composed, among others, of lakes Orta, Maggiore, Varese, Lugano, Como, Iseo, Idro and Garda.
The lakes are synonymous with luxurious lifestyle, wonderful, photogenic towns and images of world-famous celebrities zigzagging between their lakeside villas in motorboats. There is much more to them, however, than their superficial celebrity appeal: the lakes were a popular tourist destination ever since the Roma era, thanks to their position and the mild climate, and dwellings existed in the area even before that. Small towns on the lakes were frequented by historical figures, artists and writers such as Pliny the Elder and the Younger, Napoleon, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, August Strindberg, Samuel Beckett and many others. When it comes to geography, lake Maggiore is the second largest and the longest lake in Italy, while lake Como is one of the deepest lakes in Europe. The lakes belong in the chemistry books, as well, since methane was initially discovered and isolated when Alessandro Volta, born in Como, analyzed gas from lake Maggiore in the 1770s.
We were based at a very conveniently located business style hotel (my favorite type) close to the main highway connecting Milano and the lakes. Both Milano and Como were some 15 minutes away by car and we experienced no problems with traffic jams or parking. While visiting the lakes is possible with public transport, the autonomy and freedom to explore and personalize the trip to your liking that you get with a car can hardly be surpassed. Places scattered along the lakes are small, relatively narrow roads circle the lakes and you must adjust your speed, but the scenery is so beautiful that slow driving is actually a blessing in disguise which allows for some wonderful views.
Traveling in early October, we were rewarded with beautiful, sunny, mild autumn weather which gave a special, magical atmosphere to the towns we visited. Rich, deep autumn colors of the nature and golden sun reflecting on the lakes added to the sense of beauty of these places. There were not many tourists, the towns were almost a bit sleepy, the atmosphere relaxed and slowed down, and all of that suited us perfectly as we were looking for a relaxed trip.
Knowing we couldn’t visit all of them due to our limited time, we focused on a famous trio of lakes Como, Maggiore and Lugano.
On the first day, we focused on Lago Maggiore, the longest and second largest lake in Italy. We visited Cannobio, one of the prettiest towns on the lake, and enjoyed exploring narrow streets, colorful buildings, and a lovely lakeside promenade.
For the change of perspective, we drove to Mottarone, the 1,492 m high peak located close to the lake which offers beautiful views of Lago Maggiore and lovely, fresh climate. The peak can be reached with a cable car from Stresa, as well as by car drive up a very windy road through thick forest.
We concluded our first day on the lakes with a visit to Stresa. A small lakeside town is famous for its grand hotels from the 19th century and as a base for discovering the three Borromean islands: Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Madre.
The next day, we visited the gems of Lago di Como: luxurious towns Bellagio and Como and dreamy, sleepy Nesso.
From all towns visited, Bellagio gave the strongest impression of luxury and good living. It reminded me of the towns on the Amalfi coast in that it seemed to be catering specifically to the famous and affluent. Despite of the late season, the town was full of tourists and the terraces full of guests.
Our next stop was Nesso. Very different to Bellagio, this small, picturesque town looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings books – quiet, mystical and tranquil. Its main attractions are Orrido di Nesso (Nesso Gorge) with its waterfall and the Romanesque bridge Ponte della Civera. You need to climb down (and then back up) some 340 steps from the main road to reach these spots, but the beautiful views of the lake and the gorge are worth it.
Como felt more like a “real, lived-in” town than any of the other ones we visited. It has a lovely city centre, museums, churches, and many shops and feels quite lively, busy and authentic.
On the last day of our road trip, we crossed the Italian-Swiss border to visit Lago Lugano and town Lugano. Lugano is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Switzerland and it has a lovely city center and a beautiful lakeside promenade. It is a typical Swiss town in that it looks and feels amazingly tidy, clean, polite and well arranged, from parking options to parks, gardens squares and shops. The Swiss tidiness and organization suit my character perfectly, so I really enjoyed the quiet, ordered morning in the city.
Despite their closeness and similarity in location, landscape, size, urbanism and architecture, every town we visited had a unique atmosphere and air about it: luxurious Bellagio, dreamy Nesso, grounded Como, traditional Cannobio, … While I am sure that the lakes and their towns shine and have much to offer in every season, I will probably forever suggest visiting them in autumn: when the heat subsides, the crowds dwindle and the season presents itself in its most beautiful colors, changing weather and fresh air.